Saturday, February 28, 2009

Cry for a Shadow

I spent my morning at a very long dress rehearsal for a concert that my chorus is singing tomorrow. It's a concert with a lot of big singing on it, and I'm just all sung out. Freaking sick of singing, truly. I feel more instrumental right now.

So today, let's listen to "Cry for a Shadow," an odd one in the Beatles catalog for a couple reasons: it's one of only two officially-released Beatles instrumentals, and it's the only song that has a Harrison-Lennon songwriting credit. Plus, Pete Best is drumming on it, because it was recorded prior to Ringo joining the band.

The Beatles made their first commercial recordings as a backup band for then-famous Tony Sheridan on their second extended visit to Hamburg, in June of 1961. The single "My Bonnie," among others, was done in this session, but the Beatles got a chance to record a couple numbers of their own without Sheridan as well. "Cry for a Shadow" is one of them. My understanding is that early in the Beatles' career, they played many more instrumentals, which were sort of in vogue in late '50s pop, but this must have been a favorite. Though this recording first saw the light of day on a Tony Sheridan EP released in France in April of 1962 (and thanks to Beatles Discography for THAT tip, which was news to me!), it was first released in Britain and the UK after the Beatles had already become famous. In fact, completely by coincidence, today appears to be the 45th anniversary of the release of this single in Britain. But anyway, these days, the easiest place to hear it is on Anthology 1.

The song is a parody of the very-popular-at-the-time Cliff Richard and the Shadows (hence the title), who sounded, apparently, a great deal like this, right down to those random little screams Paul is throwing in. I've never listened to much Cliff Richard (my only real exposure is his "Living Doll" recording with the Young Ones in the '80s, and though I like the video and everything having to do with the Young Ones, the song is, um, not so spectacular) so I would never have figured out the connection without having read it several times in various Beatley tomes. But at the time Cliff Richard was Britain's biggest pop star, and represented a very establishment sound that the Beatles consciously tried to differentiate themselves from. Except for when they parodied it. Anyway, even if the parodic element is perhaps too dated (and, for anyone not from Britain, kind of obscure) to make sense anymore, "Cry for a Shadow" is a pleasant little diversion, isn't it?

I quite like the track's mellow feel-- I'm far more relaxed and chilled out now having listened to it a couple times-- and the way that George and John on guitars are doing so much with this very simple little melody they've got. They're making the melody sound more melodic than it actually is, if that makes sense, through smart improvisation and  just really good spirited playing. Pete's drums push the tempo a bit on the bridge in a way that I can get into, and otherwise is just as laid back as everyone else.

But one of my favorite things about this track is that you can't even really tell it's the Beatles. Because they're parodying the Shadows, the guitars just don't really sound like Beatle guitars, and the drumming (of course) sounds different from what we're used to on early Beatles records too. It could be any band-- albeit a solid, professional band-- on this track. Isn't that kind of neat? It's songs like this that show off the range the band had even this early in their career. Because they are awesome. And even listening to them play something like "Cry for a Shadow" makes me super super happy.

"Cry for a Shadow," released in the U.K. as a Polydor single b/w "Why," February 28, 1963; in the U.S. side A track 2 of MGM LP The Beatles with Tony Sheridan and Guests, February 3, 1964. Available today disc 1 track 12 of Anthology 1.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous

Friday, February 27, 2009

When I Get Home

Did you ever have a day when the act of getting home from work seems almost heroic? When the commute, normally only annoying, becomes actually torturous? When every stupid slow-walking person in your way becomes the object of your thunderous internal rage? When the T suddenly decides it wants to become an express train, which means you get dumped somewhere random and end up walking two miles in the oh-so-euphemistic "wintry-mix" and getting salt stains all over your formerly awesome boots?

Kids, John Lennon feels your pain. Actually, I don't think this is exactly what "When I Get Home" is about, but it's close. Like most Beatles songs from the A Hard Day's Night era, it's basically a love song, but couched in the language of an irritated commuter-- which I kind of love.

I like the above video mainly because I'm a sucker for A Hard Day's Night footage-- it all just seems so magical and happy and out of control, and like it was just an awesome movie to make. Of course, "When I Get Home" didn't appear in the film. It appeared on the B-side of the LP-- or at least the British version of the LP, since tedious film soundtrack rights issues that I'm too tired to go into (and would bore you anyway) meant that once again, Americans got weirdo versions of this album.

"When I Get Home" is in many ways typical of John's songwriting style at the time-- you can hear the Motown influence, particularly in those tight, exuberant vocal harmonies. But there's a lot of other stuff that's kind of unique here in this seeming throwaway. For one thing, there's John's crazy lyrics-- "I've got no time for trivialities" is one of the weirder lines to appear in an early Beatles song for sure, and then that bit "I'm gonna love her til the cows come home"?? Hilarious. Or, you know, perhaps just lazy, if you hear them that way-- but I prefer to think these lyrics are quite purposefully funny.

Harmonically, though, the song is strangely sophisticated, transitioning several times with ease between A minor and C major and going into a neato little deceptive cadence at the end. And then there's John's vocal, which he's absolutely throwing himself into. You can practically hear him grinning on this song. Paul and George are just as into it on their lines, particularly on the falsetto bits. Also, dig that aggressive guitar twang and Ringo's uncharacteristically messy playing, both of which make the rhythm seem practically out of control. It all adds up to a song that might not be the greatest work of genius the Beatles ever put out, but must have been fun as hell to play. Definitely a song to make me smile when it comes up on my iPod during even the most dreadful commute.

"When I Get Home," released in the U.K. side B track 4 of A Hard Day's Night, July 10, 1964; in the U.S. side A track 4 of Something New, July 20, 1964.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Come and Get It

You know, I've previously dissed the Anthologies a little, but I didn't mean it as a true diss: the alternate versions of familiar songs on these albums are frequently of interest to only diehards like myself (not that there aren't zillions of us), is all I was trying to say. But I've been spending a little quality time lately with Anthology 3 (I was listening to the acoustic version of "Something" yesterday, which, by the way, is worth your time) and I'd forgotten the interesting material on here. Since the Beatles were beginning to break up in the years these tracks were recorded, you've got early recordings of songs like "Junk" and "All Things Must Pass" that later made it onto solo Beatle efforts, as well as some takes from the ill-fated Get Back sessions which are mainly Beatles jamming out to covers. Not bad at all, really. And then there's this little oddity: "Come and Get It," a song that Paul wrote for Badfinger (nee The Iveys), a band that he'd basically discovered, renamed, and signed to Apple Records. He produced "Come and Get It" as their first single, and surely was instrumental in getting the song placed prominently in the Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr 1969 film, The Magic Christian. (This song is played, like, 800 times in that film-- I guess it was the only song written for it at all.)

But before he produced Badfinger's version, he recorded his own, laying down piano, drums, bass, maracas, and double-tracked vocals, and putting the whole thing together in under an hour, like the consummate professional Paul is.

Paul's version sounds remarkably like Badfinger's, which isn't surprising at all given the circumstances. As for the song itself, I've always quite liked it-- the lyrics are basically meaningless, but the whole thing is so damned catchy. And this is something that Paul probably wrote over breakfast one morning. If he had thought it was a great song, he would have kept it for himself, so that clearly wasn't the case-- and anyway the song sounds pleasantly underworked. It just never ceases to amaze me that Paul is walking around with songs THIS AWESOME floating around in his head such that he'll just give them away, you know?

Anyway, Badfinger hit #3 in the U.S. charts with this, their breakout single. Badfinger's own sad history is told elsewhere, though suffice it to say that they're connected to the Beatles in more ways than just this song. I must admit, "Come and Get It" is a Beatles song only by a technicality-- its appearance on Anthology 3 qualifies it, to me, as a member of the Beatles Nouveau Canon, such as it is, and it was recorded during the Abbey Road sessions. Even if it's all Paul, well, so was "Yesterday," and no one would call that anything but a Beatles song.

Besides, "Come and Get It" totally rocks. I like Paul's better than Badfinger's (though they do have pretty kickass close vocal harmonies), but I'm probably biased-- I'll let you pick your favorite. This is a song I wish the Beatles had recorded just for the hell of it. I'd have loved to hear the whole band on this.

"Come and Get It," released in the U.K. disc 2 track 18 on Anthology 3, October 28, 1996; in the U.S. October 29, 1996.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Happy birthday to George Harrison! Huzzah! 66 years ago today, George was born, the youngest of his parents' four children, in that small terrace house on Arnold Grove that all the Liverpool Beatles tours stop at now. To celebrate his birthday, let's listen to the song generally recognized as his best song written as a Beatle, and perhaps in his entire career, "Something."

I've never loved this promotional video (what's with all the capes?), but I do love the song, and this is what they made to go along with it, so... here.

Yeah, you know, OK, this isn't a very rock & roll song to celebrate today's very rock & roll birthday, but I love "Something," and you know you love it too. Just admit it already. "Something" is a work of freaking genius, the pinnacle of George's songwriting up to this point, so we can't celebrate George without also celebrating "Something." It is one of the most frequently covered Beatles songs ever, second only to "Yesterday," and no less a master than Frank Sinatra called it "the greatest love song of the past 50 years." He was probably right, too.

And consider that this masterpiece came from a songwriter who began with "Don't Bother Me" back in 1963-- which was a solid effort, but destined to be overshadowed, as were so many subsequent songs, by the towering geniuses of those other two guys that happened to be in his band. It couldn't have been easy to write songs under the shadows of John and Paul, but George kept at it, settling into a pattern of roughly a song per album side through the Beatles' career. But only a songwriter of real talent could have written "Something," and it just goes to show how far he'd come-- it's a song to absolutely rival the best Lennon-McCartney songs. John famously said that he thought it was the best track on Abbey Road. Personally, I'm inclined to agree with him.

George freely admitted to cribbing the opening lyric from James Taylor's "Something in the Way She Moves;" he had actually signed Taylor to Apple Records, which had released his first album in early 1969, so there was presumably some kind of creative relationship there that made George feel OK about borrowing. From that line, though, it seems the song pretty much wrote itself. George worked on it during the White Album sessions, but since that album was more than full by the time the song was ready, it had to wait until Abbey Road to see the light of day. (Well, at least as a Beatles song-- for some reason George let Joe Cocker release his cover version a couple months before Abbey Road came out-- but I cannot in good faith recommend that version. Ick. For what it's worth, George apparently wrote the song with a singer like Ray Charles in mind.) About a month after the release of Abbey Road, "Something" was also released as a double A-side single with "Come Together," which was George's first (and, sadly, last) A-side single for the Beatles. He truly earned it.

The opening triplet figure on the drums from Ringo sends us right into the justly famous soaring guitar line. Then the guitar steps back, and in the first verse George's vocal and Paul's incredible bass are front and center-- the bass is so melodic that it almost works as counterpoint to the vocal. When strings enter on the second verse, they're so subtle that you almost don't hear it unless you're listening for it, which is the kind of thing that producer George Martin really had a knack for. So the verses are moving softly along, and the lyrics seem to be about the process of falling in love, or the hesitancy before making some kind of leap into  love-- it sounds tentative and sweet and magical all at once.

But then at the bridge the mood changes, and the frequently pessimistic George can't help but turn this a little on its head, complicating the issue by suggesting that you just can't know if love like this is eternal (and sadly he and then-wife Pattie, who's so lovely in the above video, would personally learn that themselves before too long). But this idea seems to torment him-- his vocal is different here, far more impassioned. There's a pretty drastic non-traditional key change into the bridge, and the whole texture is thicker; if you haven't noticed the strings yet, this is where you do. (In fact, this is maybe my favorite Beatles strings moment ever-- listen to the cellos when George sings "will my love grow-- I don't know"-- damn, that is SWEET. For some reason that cello line ALWAYS just gets to me. CHILLS.) We're also getting much more aggressive drumming from Ringo and a bit of piano from John, part of a longer piano solo that eventually ended up getting cut. The syncopated lines in the bridge add some edge, too. In fact, the whole bridge is perfect-- just what the song needs to keep from being too sweet and sticky. And then George's guitar solo, which.... well, of course. It's beyond awesome, one of his best ever. One more go through the verse (with Paul singing backup to great effect), and then the guitar motif that's too good to end the song just once flirts briefly with another key change before flying up to that beautiful last chord.

OK, I've written a lot, and apologies for that, but don't you think this is a song to linger over? I think I might go listen to it again.

At any rate, celebrate George's birthday today however you see fit! Meditate! Play a sitar, or just listen to one! Eat jelly babies (his favorite)! Use the word "grotty" as often as possible! Watch Life of Brian, which George produced-- that's a particularly excellent way to celebrate (if you're feeling heretical) because today is also Ash Wednesday, so you'd sort of be killing two birds with one stone. Or just eat cupcakes and engage in a marathon All Things Must Pass listening session, which is probably what I'm going to do. Happy birthday, George!

"Something," released in the U.K. side A track 2 of Abbey Road, September 26, 1969; in the U.S. October 1, 1969. Double A-side single w/"Come Together" released in the U.K. October 31, 1969; in the U.S. October 6, 1969.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Revolution 1 (Take 20)-

A bonus Beatles track for today! The Beatles internet universe has been in a kerfuffle since yesterday, when one of the great Mythical Lost Beatles Tracks mysteriously found its way to YouTube.

I really don't want to say much else except.... WOW.

For a while it sounds a lot of "Revolution #1" from the White Album, but then it just... GOES. All the tape loops and sound effects are done over the band's basic track, though. It's like the missing link between "Revolution #1" and "Revolution #9."

I still haven't seen an authentication for this, which is why I waited a day to post it, but the more I listen, the more real it sounds-- it would have been hard to fake it this awesomely.

This doesn't happen every day, kiddies! Now if they ever release "Carnival of Light" my life will almost be made complete.

Update @ 11:35 pm: ARGH!!!! It's gone now! I read about it being gone on Beatles News before I even saw it here. Well, I'm leaving it up just in case the suits at EMI, those shits, sort it out with YouTube. I'm sorry, but I hope you got a listen somewhere, if not here-- it was absolutely fantastic.

Ask Me Why

Some Beatles songs are inevitably going to be more or less popular than others, but frequently mediocre songs ("The Fool on the Freaking Hill") are celebrated far more than they ought to be, when far superior songs ("Old Brown Shoe") languish, seemingly friendless. And then there are songs like "Ask Me Why." In my years of reading books and internet forums, I'd say that "Ask Me Why" is rated anywhere from just-OK to unlistenable. And, you know... yeah. The masses have pretty much given it the correct assessment. Though I'd put it closer to OK, myself.

I mean, not to be a downer. When we say that "Ask Me Why" is only OK, that's relative to the entire Beatles catalog, which means that "Ask Me Why" is still more pleasant to listen to (for me) than the vast vast VAST majority of music created in the pop music universe, EVER. Whenever I'm critical, it's only in this context.

But here's the thing: I am very, very tired. I am fending off illness and trying to stay well for a concert that my choir is singing this Sunday. (Want to come? Of course you do! It's going to be spectacular!) I am swamped at work. Much as I regret it, I don't have heaps of time to listen to the Beatles today. So let's just listen to "Ask Me Why," which doesn't demand much of me.

This is a very early song written by John, one of his first in a self-consciously Smokey Robinson style (which he'd dip into later for songs like "This Boy"). As is typical for the early Lennon style, there's some beautiful vocal harmonic stuff and lyrics that sound convoluted, cheeky, and possibly vulnerable all at the same time. Actually, to be fair, the lyrics in this song are a little sillier than usual, but it's an early effort. Structurally, it's actually kind of interesting and unpredictable-- or clumsy, depending on how you hear it, but I quite like the weird bend into the middle-eight, which to me might be the strongest part. And then, of course, the band is awesome and gives it their all-- John is throwing himself into his vocal, and Paul is smooth as hell on the bass, and George cha-cha-chas merrily along. It's all fine. It's a cute song, much as I hate to say it, but that's kind of how it comes off. Competent, but cute.

They had been performing "Ask Me Why" for a while before they put it into the set they used to audition for George Martin at Parlophone. A version of this song actually made it onto the British version of Live at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany 1962, a strange album released in 1977 from recordings made during their brief stint at the Star-Club right before they were famous. (I highly recommend you check out Beatles Discography's excellent but brief telling of the bizarre story of how this album came to be, as I learned several interesting details just now reading it.) Now, Live at the Star-Club is notorious for its horrible sound quality, so I would normally never bother to link to it, but here I will, only because I think in this context the song comes off as a little less precious. Imagine the crowds of German sailors and hookers in the Star-Club dancing to it, and it sounds a bit different, doesn't it?

I find myself quite liking this version, although in many ways it differs very little from the album version (a testament to the Beatles' professionalism as a live band)-- it's just the roughness of the recording somehow makes the edges pleasantly ragged for me.

But whatever. It's a pleasant song either way, and it made a fine B-side to "Please Please Me." Better songs would follow, but this quirky little song holds up fairly well, considering its exalted company.

"Ask Me Why," released in the U.K. as B-side to "Please Please Me," January 11, 1963; in the U.S., as B-side to Vee Jay's "Please Please Me" February 7, 1963.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous

Monday, February 23, 2009

Let It Be

Well, what with the Oscars last night apparently still fermenting in people's brains, I decided to listen today to the title song from the Beatles' last film, "Let It Be." Let It Be (the film) won an Oscar for Best Original Song Score (is that even still a category?) in 1970. It was the only Oscar that a Beatles movie ever won. So consider this my nod to the Oscars, because Lord knows I wasn't going to watch them.

Since it was the film soundtrack that won the Oscar, let's have a listen first to the version of this song that appears in the movie. Beware: this is another video in which Paul makes love to you with the magic of his eyes. Use protection as necessary.

There are a number of versions of this song, thanks to the weird stuff going on with the Beatles catalog at the time, and you can catch different versions on the single (later to be found on greatest hits collections including One), the Let It Be album, Anthology 3 (an early version featuring John mocking it), the Let It Be... Naked album released a few years ago, and then of course the film version, above. And these are just the legal versions-- there are lots more on bootlegs. One interesting bit about the above film version is that George clearly is still ironing out the kinks in the guitar solo-- in the clip above it just doesn't ring the way it does elsewhere. The same was true for the studio master track that would form the basis for the released versions. For the single version, a guitar solo was overdubbed, and then for the album version, stand-in hack producer Phil Spector kept that solo on the down-low but moved a different solo up front. There are other differences too, various levels of echo and backup singing and so forth that really change the character of the different versions. It's actually all very confusing, the history of this song's many recordings, so I urge the completists and the curious to consult the work of Mark Lewisohn, the king of completist Beatles scholars, for all the details-- or the decent account here at Wikiepedia for a quick runthrough.

Listening to "Let It Be" all but crushes my natural cynicism. See, it's that cynicism that makes me very slightly biased towards John and his songwriting style, and there's a part of me that totally gets why John made fun of this song, why he placed it on the album between his own deprecating introduction and a bawdy folk song about a prostitute. Then there's this other part of me that wants to slap John across the face for ever making fun of this song. Paul wrote it during the tense White Album recording sessions, which were the first sessions in which the group's strain was really starting to show and the band's members were beginning to actively hate each other. At the height of the bad times, poor Paul would lie awake through the night, worried about the future of the band and himself. And one night he fell asleep and his mother, Mary (her real name-- this is NOT meant to be a song about the Virgin Mary or any other Christian iconography, folks, as I'm sure Paul would appreciate my reminding you), who had died of breast cancer when he was 14, came to him in a dream and told him to try to relax, that everything was going to be OK. When he woke up, he wrote about it in "Let It Be."

It's songs like "Let It Be" that have cemented Paul's reputation as a musical genius, rightfully so. It also proves that all it takes is four chords (I, IV, V, and vi) in the hands of such a genius to totally destroy you emotionally. From its subdued gospel piano introduction to the devastating pinnacle of sound that it reaches at the finish, "Let It Be" is a masterpiece of pop. It's probably one of the greatest pop ballads ever written, and that's largely due not only to Paul's skills as a songwriter, but to the way the song is played. Paul's piano part, which is all we have through the first verse and first refrain, is straightforward and restrained. (Contrast this with the piano part on "The Long and Winding Road," recorded at around the same time, and you can hear the virtues of such simplicity-- where "The Long and Winding Road" sounds syrupy and all over the place, "Let It Be"'s assuredness grabs you immediately.) And it's not just the piano-- Ringo is actually in rare form here, and on the single and album versions, George has worked out a terrific solo that adds the right element of actual rock & roll to this. (Interestingly, John is playing bass here, which he didn't do terribly often.) Together, the band keeps it from becoming more confection than pop ballad with just solid, rocking playing. This might be Paul's show, but he's benefiting hugely from having the Beatles supporting him.

Even Phil Spector, who produced the Let It Be album, couldn't ruin this song-- though he did try, doing some weird futzing with reverb effects (see above links for details if you're nerdy) that Paul and Ringo, whose drums were produced particularly weirdly, have never loved. The single version remains the gold standard, so here it is below.

I'm struck by Paul's gift of translating his own personal struggles into something very universal, as "Let It Be" does so beautifully. Paul has a reputation for writing impersonal songs, which he does do much of the time, whereas John rarely writes about anything other than himself (sometimes making us all rather uncomfortable in the process). But this is a song that is very much about Paul's own issues, made into a thing of beauty understandable to everyone. I think that's a definition of great art-- art that even the Academy couldn't ignore.

"Let It Be," released in the U.K. as a single c/w "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)," March 6, 1970; in the U.S. March 11, 1970.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Long, Long, Long

Last night I was out in a bar, sampling a rye I'd never tried that was simply called "(ri)1," except that the i had an IPA-ish line over the top and I can't figure out a way to duplicate it here. Despite my suspicion of a rye with such an idiotic, gimicky name, it was quite good-- smoother and longer-finished than Old Overholt, which seems to be the default rye stocked in bars near me-- which was a pleasant surprise. Just then, I had a second pleasant surprise when I realized that "Long, Long, Long" was playing. The song was nearing the loud part in the middle by the time I noticed-- the quiet recording of this song had made it impossible to hear the opening over the bar noise. It was such a weird musical decision. Let's just say that the bar did not seem like a "Long, Long, Long" sort of bar. (IS there a "Long, Long, Long" sort of bar? I mean, a hookah bar, maybe. Or a bar located inside a cathedral?...)

Everything about this moment seemed like some kind of spiritual cue to listen to "Long, Long, Long" again today, HarriSunday. And to listen to it the way it's meant to be listened to, which is not in a bar, but alone in my living room in the stillness of early morning as the sunlight scatters dust across the pale curtains. That kind of thing.

I have always loved this song-- it was one of my first favorites, and I remember putting my cassette tape of the White Album on this song to fall asleep to when I was quite young. That's what made it so frustrating when I first starting reading Beatles books and seeing that no one else seems to appreciate it as much as they should. I feel like I've accidentally devoted the past few HarriSundays to some of the most unappreciated songs from George's catalog, like "The Inner Light" and "Old Brown Shoe," but gees, "Long, Long, Long"-- how can anyone not hear how amazing this song is? Is anyone even paying attention? I still get frustrated reading Tim Riley's infuriatingly dismissive entry on it, much as I otherwise love his book, Tell Me Why.

The interplay between George's acoustic guitar and Paul's Hammond organ creates a beautiful, wistful dreamscape, a mood that's really unique in the Beatles canon. George's vocal is appropriately prayerful, and sweeter than we usually hear him, especially on his higher notes-- he's actually singing all over his range on this, the melody falling from his high notes all the way to the bottom of his range. Sing along yourself and you'll feel how wide the melody spans. In this atmosphere, Ringo's bombastic drumming at the end of each line seems to emerge from out of nowhere, but on each drum break, he's actually propelling the whole track into the impassioned bridge, "so many tears I was searching." It's much louder here, Ringo playing the whole lines rather than just accents, and a piano has been added to thicken the texture with a weirdly appropriate boogie-woogie line. Up we climb still to the wailed climax, and then the piano drops out and we're back to the more intimate sound of the beginning.

At the close is when things get particularly awesome. When Paul hits one tone on his organ, a wine bottle sitting on the speaker starts rattling. This sort of thing would normally have been edited off, but the rattle sounds brilliant here, as Ringo instantly recognizes-- he starts matching the rattle on the snare to heighten the effect. Meanwhile, Paul is hitting some seriously strange chords, and George is wailing up as high as he possibly can. It all makes for an odd ending-- the effect is that some kind of spiritual pain is being exorcised.

"Long, Long, Long" is a love song written to God, though I don't think I've ever read where or how George came to write it. But he would go on to write more stuff like this in his solo career, and indeed there are elements of this song that sound like he's practicing for All Things Must Pass, his first solo album. Compared to that album, though the minimal feel and other-worldly quality of "Long, Long, Long" are, to me, superior. It's just so gorgeous. It's a song that just quashes the cynic in me.

"Long, Long, Long," released in the U.K. side C track 7 of The Beatles, a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Leave My Kitten Alone

After "Bad Boy" yesterday, I'm in the mood to just stick to the kickass rock and roll-- it's a gorgeous sunny Saturday, and I just want to dance to something relatively uncomplicated. Today's song is one that you need to hear right away if you haven't already. If "Bad Boy" is an obscure track, "Leave My Kitten Alone" is triply so, some kind of mythical treasure song. I didn't hear this until Anthology 1 came out in the '90s. It's possible (nay, probable) that this existed on bootlegs before Anthology, but I wasn't really into the bootleg scene at the time and can't verify it, and have only ever listened to it in this legally sanctioned way.

According to the detailed Anthology notes, they recorded this Little Willie John original in the Beatles for Sale sessions, the same night they recorded "Mr. Moonlight," another cover. This is take 5, the take they decided was the best, but in the end they left it off the album for reasons that appear lost to history. Maybe they thought that this bluesy R&B number would seem strange among the rockabilly songs that make up most of Beatles for Sale, but Lord knows "Mr. Moonlight" (which is a weird song anyway) sounds at least as strange on the album as "Leave My Kitten Alone" would have.

I remember listening to Anthology for the first time and just freaking stopping in my tracks when this came on. I'm not familiar with the original at all (I think I need to buy it) but if it's half as balls-to-the-wall as this cover is, it must be AMAZING. I adore everything about this song-- that messy guitar intro, the straightforward blues, the silly but threatening lyrics. And when they go into the verse and Ringo's drumming that aggressive on-the-beat thing, and then George comes in with this wicked awesome all-over-the-place guitar solo? Too much. LOVE. But most of all, as so often is the case with me, it comes down to John's gut-wrenching vocal. He is so good on these old rock & roll songs, isn't he? Gotta be one of the best rock vocalists ever-- ragged as hell, but so passionate and crazed. He's really at his best here, especially on that long falsetto stuff. This is the kind of song that makes you understand why fuddy-duddies used to think rock & roll was the devil's music, because it can totally get under your skin and make you nuts and get you all hot and bothered and lead you to do immoral things in the backseat of a car. Yow.

It's a crime this song never went out into the world until the '90s, but at least we've got it now, and we can dance and dance and dance. Kids, this is going to be a good frigging day. I can feel it.

"Leave My Kitten Alone," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 2 track 22 of Anthology 1, November 21, 1995.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous

Friday, February 20, 2009

Bad Boy

"Bad Boy" is another, like "The Inner Light," that could count as a genuinely obscure Beatles song, inasmuch as such a thing can exist at all. But what's really weird about this is that American audiences heard it before English audiences, which was rare, considering that American fans were much more frequently screwed over. "Bad Boy" was an extra song recorded specifically to pad out one of the grotesque fake American albums, Beatles VI, assembled piecemeal by the schmucks at Capitol (the American division of EMI, which released the official Beatles canon in the states), and as such it was sort of a first, for Capitol hadn't needed extra material before.

Just to very very quickly sum up why this sort of thing happened: there are a few reasons why the British and the American albums don't match up properly. The primary one has to do with American royalty structure at the time: if an American album had only 10 songs on it, contracts stipulated that the band's royalty percentage was smaller than if it had 12 or 14, which incentivized record companies to trim songs at a time when artists had very little control over how their work was released. Whereas in Britan, royalties weren't tied to song quantity, and consumers had come to expect at least 14 songs on a pop album. This meant that original 14-track British LPs released on Parlophone would, in the states, routinely have a few songs shaved off to bring the total down to 10 songs, and Capitol would save all the trimmed songs and eventually release a brand new album that had never existed in the U.K. It's all totally sordid, but this is how we have mutant Beatles offspring like Yesterday and Today and Beatles '65 and, here, Beatles VI.

So the stupid, stupid, STUPID system in place until Sgt. Pepper in 1967 (which even the godless morons at Capitol realized it would be heretical to mess around with) did yield a few good things, and two of them were the Beatles' recordings of "Bad Boy" and "Dizzy Miss Lizzie," both of them covers of Larry Williams originals. The latter, also on Beatles VI in the states, found its way in Britain to Help!, which is where the official canon as recognized by critics and contemporary CDs still places it today. But "Bad Boy" is an oddity, and never found a home on a British album until 1966's A Collection of Beatles Oldies, probably the first Greatest Hits album, released in lieu of a new Christmastime album that year. The best place to listen to it today is Past Masters Volume 1. Or, you know, right here.

The original was written and performed by Larry Williams, but I've never heard the original version, more's the pity, since I understand that Williams was a phenomenal performer. When Little Richard found religion and gave up rock & roll in the late '50s, I know that Williams was styled to be some kind of successor to him, and he had some hits with "Bad Boy" as well as "Bony Maroney" and "Slow Down" (which is one of my favorite under-appreciated Beatles covers), though by the early '60s it looks as though his career had actually slowed down (har har) quite a bit.

"Bad Boy" is a jokey sendup of fears of rock & roll's effect on the young people, with the titular bad boy doing everything from putting tacks in Teacher's chair to actually killing people's pets. And if I know anything about Beatles' covers, I'll speculate that this is a fairly faithful rendition of the original. Since I only know this version, though, I want to call out George's amazing guitar licks, which act as replies to John's almost better vocal. I love John's vocal on this, I really do. John is totally getting a kick out of everything this kid is doing-- and no doubt he's really singing about himself, of course, remembering feeling like a misfit and a rock & roll freak in his schoolboy days. When he sings "behave yourself" it's a weird mocking come-on, or maybe a dare, but it's certainly dripping with a charming disingenuousness. The Beatles were, by now (they recorded this while filming Help!) a respectable pop band with zillions of mainstream fans, but John's taking this opportunity to call out to all the rocking kids that he's just like them. The sense of the freakiness of rock & roll comes through here in spades, which makes it an excellent foil to the songs that John was writing and recording around this time ("Help!," "I'm a Loser," "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," etc.). I think you can see this cover as part of the continuum of John's unique brand of loneliness really began to come to the forefront in the mid-'60s. After all, why this song, when they had heaps of others in their repertoire to rush out for their stupid American record company? I really think this wasn't an accident.

But all this is beside the point when the song is so damned good anyway. I hate that it's songs like "Bad Boy" that get overlooked-- no one could argue that the Beatles were just establishmentarian wanker goody-two-shoes in moptops listening to John's heartwrenching vocal and the tight, tight band at work here. Seriously. I love this kind of rock & roll-- clearly, I need to seek out some Larry Williams records-- and the Beatles loved it too, and my God could they play it. Listen again, and dance around your living room! Then break a lamp or something for good measure. It feels deliciously bad.

"Bad Boy," released in the U.K. side B track 2 of A Collection of Beatles Oldies, December 9, 1966; in the U.S. side A track 4 of Beatles VI, June 14, 1965.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Shameless self-promotion (of the non-Beatley persuasion).

In my non-Beatles life, I'm an editor and occasional contributor at Not Coming to a Theater Near You, a film site that is awesome. There's a cool feature going on now called Silence After Sound that covers the silents of 1928, the last year in which silent films still made up a significant part of Hollywood's output. A different silent is being covered every day by the site's various writers, and for today I've written about Beggars of Life, a Louise Brooks melodrama that deserves to be more widely available. Anyway, if you're at all interested in silent films, check out the link-- all the reviews are interesting and fun to read, and there are more to come (including one more from me on The Wind, an even cooler silent), so keep checking back.

Your Mother Should Know

I've been longwinded here on the blog, lately, I know, drowning my sorrows in rambling, opinionated pieces, and anyone still reading has my gratitude for hanging in there. Hope you've liked the songs, at least. But in the end, I can't work up a super-strong opinion about every single Beatles song. It would be too emotionally exhausting anyway. Oh, I can listen to them all (and listen I will!) but there are some songs that I find pleasant enough without having too much else to say. Anyway, here it is a Thursday in February, and I am too zonked to work up a strong opinion about much of anything, having been out last night attending a get-together that involved copious amounts of pie and the heart-stopping drama of Catchphrase. So, I mean, let's just all get up and dance to a song that was a hit before your mother was born.

The story I always remember about this is that the Beatles were invited to perform on Our World, the first international satellite TV special, broadcast live in June of 1967 all over the world. This was a big deal, and they decided to debut a new song for the occasion. John and Paul each pitched a new song-- Paul had "Your Mother Should Know," and John had "All You Need Is Love." Now, whatever you feel about the merits of these two songs (I wouldn't put either in my own personal top 10), clearly "All You Need Is Love" is more appropriate for a touchy-feely worldwide TV special like Our World, and it won. "Your Mother Should Know" ended up in Magical Mystery Tour, the head-scratcher of a film that Beatle fans love and people with taste snivel at.

The song itself makes a decent enough big-finale number in the film, with the Beatles descending that staircase in some kind of '30s-musical parody, hopping about cutely as Paul delivers his earnest vocal. And the song is nice. The melody kind of meanders in a pleasantly unpredictable way, and the instrumental breaks with John on organ provide some interest. You can definitely swing your head around to this and find it a soothing accompaniment to your day, can't you? I'm not even bothered particularly by the lack of lyrical variation. It just makes it that much easier to sing along to.

You know what the problem is, actually? That "Your Mother Should Know" follows "When I'm 64" (from Sgt. Pepper) so closely-- it sounds a lot alike, another music hall nostalgia piece from Paul, but it doesn't have anywhere near the wit or musical punch  that "When I'm 64" does. It comes off as almost lazy, which, OUCH, I know, but don't you think? There's definitely a laconic feel here where there should be more energy, more pizzazz.

Well, whatever. It's OK, Paul. I'm not really feeling the energy or pizzazz today either. So I'll swing my head and watch you dance your way to the end of the magical mystery tour and have a nice little smile and maybe a cup of tea and get on with my day. It's a good song, lad. Da da da da da da da da.

"Your Mother Should Know," released in the U.K. side A track 2 of Magical Mystery Tour double EP, December 8, 1967; in the U.S. side A track 5 of Magical Mystery Tour LP, November 27, 1967.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)

What a perfectly melancholy song for today. Yesterday, you know, was not an awesome day-- sometimes even listening to "Why Don't We Do It In the Road" just can't guarantee a girl a good day, unfortunately. That's why today I'm treating myself to something quite different with "Norwegian Wood."

It can sometimes be hard to tell, particularly here in 1965, smack-dab in middle-period Beatles, who wrote each Lennon-McCartney song. But I'm putting this one squarely in John's corner. Now, that said, you can't trust John's and Paul's own accounts of who wrote what song-- you have to take into account their bad memories and their impure motives. In the early '70s, when John was debasing Paul every chance he got and writing heinous squirm-inducing screeds like "How Do You Sleep," he tried to take credit for contributing to songs that were clearly 100 %  McCartney songs, like "All My Loving." Ridiculous. But ever since John's death and the adoption of Lennon-the-icon as some kind of weird peacenik-genius-hero-martyr for the masses, Paul has felt the need to protect his own legacy, and has been gradually taking credit for collaborating on songs that I firmly do not believe he wrote, including "In My Life," which could not be more of  a John song if it tried. (Barry Miles's Many Years from Now, which is technically a McCartney biography but told very much in Paul's own words, is absolutely rife with Paul trying to rehape his legacy-- I think he even credits himself with coming up with the idea for "Revolution #9." Can someone please tell him that his legacy is safe, because he is, um, Paul McCartney? And that, if he wants people to remember how avant-garde and arty he is, and how he's not a mere peddler of silly love songs, then perhaps he shouldn't have written and released freaking "Silly Love Songs"? You gotta own it. Just sayin'.)

Wow, once again I'm digressing hugely. Back to "Norwegian Wood." So this is a song written by John-- though Paul has claimed credit for bits on the middle eight, my ear tells me that they can't have been very significant bits. (Of course Ian MacDonald, that crotchety old a-Paul-ogist, falls all over himself with excitement that Paul might be involved in this song, going so far as to call it "close to a fifty-fifty collaboration." Which I'm going to go ahead and call ridiculous.) This is one of those songs that the band worked and worked on in the studio, trying to get it just right for John, who on some songs could be a gigantic perfectionist and drive everyone else nuts (see also: "Strawberry Fields Forever"). Whatever John thought of it, though, the finished recording is amazing-- a true gem in the catalog.

John wrote this about an affair he was having, doing his best to keep the words kind of vague and poetic-sounding so his wife Cynthia didn't know exactly what it might be about. The "Norwegian wood" is apparently a nasty-sounding wood paneling that was the style at the time in many youthful living rooms, and it would surely catch fire quickly if, say, you wanted to burn a building down just because you didn't get laid last night. As happens in our story here-- though much more punchily told, of course. As John was doing a lot of at this period, there's some Bob Dylan imitation here (which Dylan responded to snarkily with "4th Time Around" from Blonde on Blonde), though to my ear John's Dylan-ness is always oversold. He might be taking in the influence, sure, but he always just sounds like John to me. It's totally possible that at the time, in context, the imitation was more blatant, and anyway by the time he wrote this song the other Beatles were beginning to joke him a bit for it, so clearly people noticed.

Now, for all my talk of John and Paul bickering with each other, I have managed to get this far into the post without mentioning the REAL star of "Norwegian Wood," who, of course, is George Harrison on the sitar. George first discovered the sitar filming a scene in Help! that featured a couple Indian musicians, and later ended up buying a record of sitar music and being captivated. (And how fascinating that George was to discover his life-long love of this rich, complex, beautiful music on the set of Help!, a film that sets back Indian-western relations several hundred years.) On "Norwegian Wood" he apparently brought out the sitar almost as an experiment, with John's encouragement, and tuned it like a guitar to match what John was doing. Later George would learn how to play the thing properly, and he went on to say many times that the sitar playing on this song is NOT really technically correct in any way, but still-- it was the first time this instrument had been used on a pop record, and it was amazing to those who heard it, which is why the effect that got ripped off a bunch of times within the next year or so.

The sitar is what you notice almost first thing, just behind John's energized acoustic guitar entrance. It plays a sweet waltz that's almost lilting, that seems to fall gracefully into each line. There are no drums on this song, either-- Ringo is on the tambourine and maracas for most of it, so it's just that little shuffle of percussion lulling us into the scene.

John's opening vocal is sweet, too, and wistful: "I once had a girl, or should I say she once had me." There's already much more realism and maturity in this song than in, say, "She Loves You," which was only about two years prior-- that's the Dylan influence, but also just the Beatles getting kind of sick of writing that kind of song. Anyway, even though it's already a very adult topic, we can't predict at this point where it'll end up. There's some nice flirtation, some wine, some presumably very intellectual discussion, along with quirky details that flesh things out nicely-- there aren't any chairs, for instance. But in the end all the talk comes to naught, and John's left sleeping in the bath. It's all a very sad story, of course, but who else but John Lennon then burns the whole house down the next morning? And we're still in that sweet waltz time here, so you picture him just waltzing away humming from a burning building. Brilliant. And a thousand miles away from where we started.

"Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)": So beautiful. So demented. While we can debate whether it's one of their best tracks ever, it's certainly one of the most memorable, and one of the strongest entries on the very strong album that is Rubber Soul. An excellent start to what hopefully will be a slightly less weird day for me.

"Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," released in the U.K. side A track 2 of Rubber Soul, December 3, 1965; in the U.S. side A track 2 of Capitol's bastardized Rubber Soul, December 6, 1965.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Why Don't We Do It In the Road?

One of the proudest moments in my college career is the time I wrote a 5-page paper on "Why Don't We Do It In the Road." The class was some kind of introduction to literary criticism, the first required English-major class, and we were to write a series of short papers about any piece at all-- pop songs were actively encouraged, as their texts are frequently simple enough to be covered in a short paper, and the point was that we were supposed to be learning about how everything is a text, that even a pop song's lyrics have slippery, elusive meanings for a critic to explore.

I'm sure I chose this song just to be an ass, as was frequently my wont, but I also relished the challenge. The paper is lost to history, which is for the best for everyone, especially me, because I'm sure it's embarrassingly stupid. But I don't really remember anything about it other than that I got an A, and my instructor commented that indeed, this song is a perfect little "rock haiku." And that phrase seemed more true and more complete than anything I'd bullshitted in those 5 pages.

Anyway, "Why Don't We Do It In the Road" has always been a favorite of mine. The White Album was in some respects a conscious swing away from the artistic excesses of Sgt. Pepper (not to mention the less well-received excesses of Magical Mystery Tour), and you can't get much more straight-up sick rock-and-roll than this kickass 12-bar blues.

So Paul and Ringo recorded this alone, while John and George were working on some other White Album stuff, and John never quite got over it-- he references feeling left out of this song in his famous Playboy interview in 1980. Of course John was a dick in his own way to Paul a thousand times, so I'm not saying John's right to complain about this-- but it's interesting that this is what he remembers. I think he just likes the song so darned much that he wishes he could have played on it. And, I mean, of course.

Paul claimed to have written this in India, watching two monkeys go at it in the middle of a road, which made him think about how the animals are luckier and perhaps smarter for having fewer hangups about sex and stuff than humans do. This is probably true-- but don't you wish you didn't know that story? I prefer to think that Paul came up with this song on the spot as he wolf-whistled out the window at some London hotties. Or that the song just emerged fully-formed from his guitar, like Athena popping out of Zeus's head.

Because, though I might not have thought so back in college, I don't want this song to be some counter-cultural sex-revolution message song. I want it to be dirty as hell. I want the song to convince me that not only should I be doing it in the road with Paul right this second (Paul: call me!), I should also not give a crap who happens to be watching us.

Luckily all that stuff I want is actually there. Paul flirts with us in so many songs, but here it's as if he can't bear to flirt anymore-- instead, he's begging for it, laying it all on the line, and he does not have time to take us home first and freaking seduce us with some lingerie, it's gotta be the road. Right now. He's asking with a smile, and a coy "no one will be watching us" (which we know darned well isn't true), but this man has some needs. Just listen to it: that piano line throbs as relentlessly as a vein in a forehead, and Ringo's drum fills are dripping with machismo. But it's Paul's vocals that really sell it-- any time Paul does his Little Richard voice I just totally melt, and here he does it maybe best of all, just torn up and crazy and rocking the hell out of this vocal. By the time he's come around for the third time, I'm all crazed too, rocking out right along with him. This is a powerful rock haiku-- it just goes to show the power of some blues chords and some groovy piano and some Paul McCartney. Needless to say, he's got me totally convinced. (Paul: call me!)

Yow! Perhaps it's time for a cold shower. No, no, I'm just gonna listen to it one more time...

"Why Don't We Do It In the Road?", released in the U.K. side B track 7 of The Beatles, a.k.a. The White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.

Monday, February 16, 2009

I Don't Want to Spoil the Party

Clearly I've been feeling a little bit country-fried lately, or at least ever since writing about "So How Come (No One Loves Me)" the other day. I've had that song jangling pleasantly in my head ever since, in a loop with "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party," one of the Beatles' most overtly country songs. This is one of those songs that I love more than, perhaps, one even should-- in many ways it's a slight entry on what's generally considered one of the weaker albums, Beatles for Sale. But somehow it's always kind of gotten me.

In fact, this is a moment in which my pro-John bias shines through. A Paul-ite probably thinks of a song like "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party" as a sort of self-indulgent album track that John wrote in 10 minutes. That's how I think of songs like "Mother Nature's Son" and "Hold Me Tight." It doesn't mean that I don't really like those songs-- I very much like those songs. I'd just prefer to listen to "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party" in most cases. See, I think your John/Paul preference has to do with which of the weaker tracks you're willing to put up with. We can all agree that "Hey Jude" and "I Am the Walrus" are awesome, but the amount of self-indulgence you're willing to put up with from John or Paul is probably what determines where your bias is. I freely admit to my own bias. I rail against songs like "The Fool On the Hill" and "Michelle," which are the only two Beatles songs that I sometimes actually skip over while listening to the albums they're on, as Paul at his most smarmy. Whereas many Paul-ites will rail similarly against the never-ending jam of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" as John at his most navel-gazing. That's a fair point, but one that I happen to vehemently disagree with. I just put up with John's quirks more so than I do Paul's, despite loving them both passionately.

Now that I've wasted all this time rambling, let's just get to the song already.

There's a very clear Everly Brothers influence here, which I support completely, although interestingly John is harmonizing with himself, his two vocal lines tracked together. Paul only comes in on the bridge, singing lustily near the top of his range. And George's guitar solo sounds very much in the vein of Carl Perkins, which is unsurprising considering both the style of this song and that George was Perkins' biggest fan.

Like several other songs on Beatles for Sale, this one is about a love gone horribly wrong. We get a sense in "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party" that there's been some kind of dramatic flare-up and a storming-out, and a poor drunk John has to deal with the embarrassing fallout. The words betray that self-loathing that John's songs from this period frequently give away-- you can see this song as a rung in the ladder of misery that took him from "I'll Cry Instead" to "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" and beyond, eventually into primal scream therapy and the Plastic Ono Band album's catharsis. Of course at this point he was nowhere near there yet, hiding his numerous issues inside a charming little country song that we can all shuffle along on the dance floor too.

That said, I do quite like this song-- its sweet vocal harmonies in thirds, the building excitement that gets into the guitars and the vocals on the bridge, and the heartbroken country-ness of the whole thing. It makes me want to reach back in time and just give John a big hug.

"I Don't Want to Spoil the Party," released in the U.K. on Beatles for Sale, December 4, 1964; in the U.S. as B-side to "Eight Days a Week" single, February 15, 1965, and later on Beatles VI, June 14, 1965.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Inner Light

Today's HarriSunday is apparently, according to DM's Beatles site, the anniversary of the day in 1968 when George and wife Pattie (plus John and wife Cynthia) flew off to India for their retreat with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The other Beatles would eventually join them. Though the trip ended in tears all round, it was particularly important to George, and while John and Paul used this time away from it all to compose a bunch of songs (many of which found homes on the White Album), it seems that George used the time as it was meant to be used, by actually meditating. At least this is what I assume, as I can't think of a song that George ever claimed to have written there.

So to commemorate this day in Beatles history, today I'm listening to "The Inner Light," which was actually recorded in Bombay during the sessions for George's Wonderwall soundtrack. Along with "Love You To" and "Within You, Without You," this song dates from George's Indian music phase; all three are played on Indian instruments, by Indian musicians, and they're sort of oddities in the Beatles canon. But all have merit, and even if we're a little relieved that George found his way back to rock and roll eventually, songs like "The Inner Light" are interesting attempts to mesh Indian timbres and harmonies into the format of a 3-minute western pop song. So, as always with the Beatles, worth a listen.

Of the three Indian songs, I like "The Inner Light" the most, which is why I've always been somewhat bummed that it languished as the B-side to "Lady Madonna" while the much more (for my money) ponderous, soporific "Within You, Without You" got play every time a roomful of hippies put on Sgt. Pepper for the zillionth time. But no matter. Its later release on Past Masters makes it more accessible now than it was for years. Not to mention the existence of YouTube.

The lyrics of the song come from the Tao te Ching, so they're not George's own, though they enhance the mystical way we're probably supposed to feel listening to this. But mysticism aside, the reason I like "The Inner Light" a lot is because I think it's the most successful of the Indian songs at working in true pop elements-- so we can enjoy it purely as a pop song. There's a driving beat reminiscent of an actual backbeat, and a good riff in that melodic instrument used in the intro and elsewhere (I'm sorry, I took an introductory class on Indian music in college, but I nevertheless don't know at all what these instruments actually are). That instrument, which I guess is a bowed string instrument of some kind based on its sustained notes, sounds so much like a human voice that back when I was a teenager listening to this song on my battered 45 on a terrible little mono turntable, I actually thought it might be a wail. So even though I've been disappointed since to learn that it's not, it's still pretty neat. The other element you notice right away is that insistent drone under everything-- which is part of what keeps the song resolutely Indian. I don't get the sense that there's a ton of harmonic variation (which you'd expect in a western pop song, particularly a Beatles song) in "The Inner Light," as there seems to be almost no dissonance over the drone.

Anyway, the beat established in the intro and the breaks goes away in the verses in favor of sustained chords and a countermelody on some sort of flute. George's vocal is very nice here, very gentle and sweet, and the vocal melody itself is beautiful. Flitting between the two modes, the songs works really well, I think, especially at the very end. The only contribution from the other Beatles is a tiny bit of backup singing from John and Paul on the very last words of the coda-- "do all without doing"-- which is one of those little touches that somehow does much more work than it should. It's actually incredibly awesome.

So if you haven't listened to "The Inner Light" before-- totally possible these days if you don't have Past Masters-- enjoy. Its status as one of the most obscure Beatles recordings is a sad thing-- play this instead of "Within You, Without You" next time you feel like Mystical George.

"The Inner Light," released in the U.K. as B-side of "Lady Madonna," March 15, 1968; in the U.S. March 18, 1968.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Things We Said Today

Since yesterday I wrote about what I feel to be a massively overrated Paul McCartney song, today I feel honor-bound to write about a massively underrated Paul McCartney song, "Things We Said Today." I adore this song, and I don't think most critics give it the credit it deserves-- except for lovable musicologist Alan W. Pollack, who totally gets it, and whose piece I recommend reading if you're feeling particularly geeky today. But anyway, "Things We Said Today" is one of those little Beatle masterpieces that sits quietly minding its own business on the B side of an album, waiting to change your life forever. (See also, most famously: "Yesterday.")

Paul wrote this on a boat in the Caribbean while on holiday with Jane Asher, as well as Ringo and his girlfriend Maureen Cox; he had strayed down to the lower decks and apparently never lost a certain queasiness as he composed. Nonetheless, what an amazing result-- it's so MATURE, much as I sort of hate that word. Compare this song with "And I Love Her," the other minor-key McCartney ballad on A Hard Day's Night. That song is beautiful, but there's a certain clear-eyed youthfulness to it, whereas "Things We Said Today" takes love a great deal more seriously and feels much more melancholy. Here's the album version (though a fairly uninteresting video).

Rooted in the extremely interesting (for them) key of A natural-minor, with a bunch of weird excursions into B-flat territory, the song has a harmonic nebulousness that perfectly complements the lyrics, which are all about the uncertainty of the future.

OK, I just reread that sentence, and I am clearly descending into wonkiness, so, all apologies. AHEM.

So the lyrics project nostalgia into the future-- someday we'll remember things we said today-- and show a keen awareness that what's happening right now is a crucial moment in the relationship, though the natural minor key sounds, to my ear, musically uneasy about the whole thing. The whole concept is so much more adult than in other Beatles songs, in which, you know, I love you and she loves you and we'll all be true and so on and so forth. But to counteract the potential dreariness, these lyrics, are accentuated by percussive piano playing by John and a real snap to George's guitar that keeps the song from ever sounding plodding.

Then at the bridge, it abruptly goes into A major. When the Beatles wrote songs in minor keys, which actually wasn't terribly often, they frequently liked to throw in this switchover in the bridge to major (on this very album, it happens again in "I'll Be Back"), and here the major key signals a whole new burst of energy-- the guitars seem to be revitalized. This is particularly evident when they played it live, as in the Live at the BBC version of this song, or in the video below, which features them playing live at the 1964 Indiana State Fair. The video quality is poor, but you can still see John suddenly get very excited about playing in major-- as if he feels like he can rock out a bit more now.

One thing both the live versions do is close the song halfway through the verse, on the lyric "we'll go on and on," which, for me, is an even more wistful ending than the one on the album version. They must have decided that they preferred it that way, and I think I do too, if I had to choose.

Isn't this an amazing McCartney ballad? Surely one of the great unheralded ones. Even Paul himself doesn't seem to get it-- when he's spoken about it, he's congratulated himself on the interesting harmonic stuff going on, but even he doesn't seem to think that it's one of the best things he ever wrote. Am I insane? No. The song rules. I could listen to it forever.

Gad, I just realized that I wrote about a Paul ballad on Valentine's Day, which I didn't do intentionally and kind of grosses me out, as everything about this insipid holiday does. Well, goodie. Have a happy stupid Valentine's Day if you're celebrating it. Frankly, the sentiments in "Things We Said Today" are more than this holiday deserves.

"Things We Said Today," released in the U.K. side B track 3 of A Hard Day's Night, July 10, 1964; in the U.S., side A track 2 of Something New, July 20, 1964.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous

Friday, February 13, 2009


Though to my knowledge they never used a ukelele on a commercial recording, the Beatles and ukeleles seem almost cosmically linked. I first noticed this when I saw Paul play "Something" on the ukelele back in 2004, though he had first done so at the Concert for George.

And of course there's this from the Anthology DVDs.

But I'm digressing. Point is, I read something on A Beatles' Hard-Dies Site today about an ongoing project to record the entire Beatles catalog on the ukelele. I support this project one thousand percent. These recordings will gradually released every Tuesday from now until 2012, so it'll keep us all busy for a while.

The Long and Winding Road

Since Friday the 13th is supposedly such an unlucky day, I feel I may as well tackle one of the most unlucky songs in the Beatles canon-- and one that I have to confess to not really loving. So, um, here we are. "The Long and Winding Road."

This track is famous-- infamous, more like-- for its craptacular production at the hands of Phil Spector. The entire story is long. And also winding. In a nutshell, by early 1970 the Get Back sessions, which were miserable all around, had been shelved, but John, who thought Phil Spector had done a good job on his "Instant Karma!" single (recorded in January of 1970), threw all the tapes from those sessions at Spector and told him to basically do what he could with them. John did this without consulting anyone else in the band, and without, apparently, any thought to what the musical result would be. Well, the result was Let It Be, the Beatles' anticlimactic swan song, the loudest, saddest fizzle of what's otherwise an almost perfect career.

Now, to be clear: what John did was crappy. (I particularly love Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head on this subject-- that book, though a great and informative read, is also a gigantic French kiss to Paul from a clear McCartneyite, and MacDonald seems to want to leap through the page and rip John's head off for his sabotage of Paul's genius here.)

Ahem. What John did was crappy. And what Spector did to Paul's "The Long and Winding Road" was even crappier. He added on layers and layers of strings and trumpets and harp and a treble choir of ahhhhs and basically everything but the kitchen sink. It was a terrible idea, antithetical to the whole Beatles ethos that had been developed over the years under the clean, dry, dare-I-say-witty production of George Martin. Spector's "Long and Winding Road" debacle is, perhaps, one of the worst production jobs that's ever been done to any song, EVER. No doubt.

BUT-- all that said, all that blame assigned, there is still a gigantic BUT-- the song is not that great to begin with. I'm sorry, fans of weepy Paul songs out there, but, no. I love a weepy Paul song ("For No One"? "Here, There, and Everywhere"? Even bloody "I Will"? Nothing but LOVE) but this isn't his strongest work. And see, I'm convinced that if we weren't bound to discuss the production, which indeed is godawful and should be roundly criticized as often as we can do so, we'd notice that the song itself is only OK. I think the song gets too much credit as this genius McCartney ballad that was unfairly ruined. That is partly true-- the song WAS ruined, and it was done without Paul's consent, without even his input, and that is all very bad. But the song is simply not in any way genius.

There are now other versions available to listen to, so we can check out the Anthology 3 track to see how it sounds sans Spector. Or we can listen to this version from Let It Be (the film), which also appears on Let It Be... Naked (the album). Sit back and allow Paul to make sweet, sweet love to you with ONLY HIS EYES.

See, maybe you disagree. But you know what I hear? I hear a freaking easy listening song. And apparently, so did Phil Spector, because he produced it like an easy listening song (a particularly crappy one, yes, but still). I mean, God, look how bored the other Beatles look! Billy Preston seems to be having a pretty good time, but, well, he's playing with the Beatles-- I'd be pleased as punch to play "Three Blind Mice" with the Beatles. So we cannot take Billy Preston seriously in this case. The adult contemporary sound comes through in the piano part: those ponderous syncopated chords that proceed the chorus, and those little treble fills that sound, I swear to God, like something Jim Brickman would improvise. There's no heart, there's no edge, there's none of that meat that the best McCartney ballads have in spades.

The melody is nice. The melody is BEAUTIFUL. We all know that Paul can write gorgeous melodies. And this song is by no means actually bad-- it can definitely get it me when I'm in the right mood. But.... hmm. He should have either done this one with completely different instrumentation-- just getting off the piano already-- or given it to someone else (and my understanding is that he did try to give it Tom Jones and other balladeers, which I guess never went anywhere). Or he should have saved it for his solo career, as he did with other songs, including the exponentially more awesome "Maybe I'm Amazed."

So, in the end, it's easy for us to blame Phil Spector for single-handedly ruining this song, and about ten thousand commentators have done so already. I just want to throw in my opinion, which I don't think I've seen elsewhere, that the song wasn't awesome anyway. Now if Spector had ruined a TRULY genius song, like "Hey Jude" or something, that'd be another matter. The whole story of "The Long and Winding Road" is just depressing, especially considering it was the Beatles' last single in the U.S. It's just a sad way to end a career as auspicious as theirs.

I don't think Paul agrees with me, though, because he still likes to perform it live. But that's OK. I mean, his solo career is filled with easy listening moments anyway-- I would still rather listen to "The Long and Winding Road" than the likes of "My Love." Anyway, here he is performing it live in Liverpool a little over a year ago.

"The Long and Winding Road," released in the U.K. side B track 3 of Let It Be, May 8, 1970; in the U.S. as a single c/w "For You Blue," May 11, 1970, and on side B track 3 of Let It Be, May 18, 1970.